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Students build portable solar boxes to help restore services in Puerto Rico

A “Solar Saver” box built by Penn State students, center, is displayed with other solar boxes bound for Puerto Rico. Image: Penn State
May 2, 2018

Nikhil Bharadwaj had an ingenious idea for improving the tailgating experience for him and his friends at Penn State football games.

Drawing from his love of renewable energy, the senior majoring in energy engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences began drafting plans for a small-scale solar box capable of charging cell phones and powering devices while tailgating at Beaver Stadium.

But when Hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, dismantling power on about 80 percent of the island home to approximately 3.3 million people, Bharadwaj had a better idea. He began working on creating what he refers to as “Solar Saver” boxes for Puerto Rico, to assist the nearly 50,000 residents who were as of April 17 still without power, according to the U.S. government.

As president of the Penn State student chapter of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), Bharadwaj tapped the club for help with the Solar Saver boxes. Much like commercial installations, the group calculated energy needs to create wattage and storage requirements and assessed the solar energy potential for Puerto Rico. Those calculations shaped the design process that resulted in a 30-watt and 16-amp-hour box capable of each day charging about 35 phones. Through contacts there, he found out that indoor lighting and communicating with families was a top priority for residents dealing with disaster.

“Our focus was on bringing back technology to the residents,” Bharadwaj said. “We wanted to help families communicate with each other, and have power for light. You can even run power tools off of these boxes. Just basic stuff to get their lives back in order. The idea is to have it placed in central locations in communities where people can just have access to power.”

Bharadwaj and other club members had plenty of help. They were given more than $4,500 in funding from the Alternative Energy Development Group, the company that’s building a two-megawatt solar array near Mount Nittany Medical Center; Lions Pride; and crowdsourcing donations through GoFundMe.

Michael Rybacki, who owns and operates the local solar-energy business Red Stone Renewables, offered planning and construction guidance. Javier Camacho, a YouTube blogger and engineer who lives in Puerto Rico, helped distribute the boxes once they arrived. They also found help building larger, more powerful boxes through Enactus, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating a more sustainable world.

“ASES has not only been an avenue for me to learn about solar technologies, but also a productive platform where our work can directly impact the way people live,” said member Shreya Iyer, a first-year student who is seeking to enter the energy engineering program.  

Ellis Driscoll, president of Enactus, said the Solar Saver project was a great display of groups working together toward a common goal and students learning throughout the process.

“Solar Saver is a great showcase of the Penn State community coming together. Not only did two student organizations come together, but they also involved Penn State alumni, business partners and the State College community in the project. All this to help those in need through sustainable technology,” Driscoll said. “It was great to see students dedicating time to make a lasting impact on the world.”

Bharadwaj said thinking sustainably is something that’s now in his blood.

“Penn State’s energy engineering program is the best thing that’s happened to me,” Bharadwaj said. “If you ask me who I am, I start talking about energy. There’s nothing else to me anymore. I’ve just imbibed energy, sustainability and climate action into who I am. It’s become my religion. I am grateful to Penn State for giving me that platform.”

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